DH Lawrence (1885 – 1930)
I read Sons and Lovers at an incredibly fast pace, considering its length (512 extra long pages) trying to cross the finish line the same time as the Guardian Book Group. Didn’t quite match my pace with theirs (to be fair, I started two weeks later) but I finished a few days later, squeaking in Mr. Lawrence’s novel too late to discuss the book but qualifying it as an official Guardian 1000 read nonetheless.
David Herbert Lawrence was a novelist, critic, poet and painter born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire on September 11, 1885. His father was a coal miner and his mother a former teacher. In the novel, the father is a coal miner and the mother is, though not a teacher, much more refined than her husband – one of the sources of friction between them. Also, one of the main characters – Paul Morel – is the fourth son of five children, as was Lawrence. Paul was also a great reader and artist, as was the author. In other words, the book was autobiographical, to what extent beyond these basics I’m really not sure.
I regret having to squeeze Lawrence in so quickly but I’ll be seeing him again for Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Rainbow, at least, so there’s that.
His full biographical information can be found on this official site.
Sons and Lovers, to reduce it down to the basics, is the story of Paul Morel. A young man who wishes more for his life than being a collier like his alcoholic and often violent father, he gets a job in a factory making stockings and prosthetic limbs. An artist, he makes a bit of money on the side, through his drawings.
He’s a restless young man, devoted to his mother to the extent it’s almost creepy. As such – and I know there must be incredible amounts of scholarship devoted to the psychology behind it – his relationships with women are fraught with emotional trauma. And that’s putting it very mildly.
Lawrence began working on the novel in the period of his mother’s illness, and often expresses this sense of his mother’s wasted life through his female protagonist Gertrude Morel. Letters written around the time of its development clearly demonstrate the admiration he felt for his mother — viewing her as a ‘clever, ironical, delicately moulded woman’ — and her apparently unfortunate marriage to his coal-miner father, a man of ‘sanguine temperament’ and instability. He believed that his mother had married below her class status. Rather interestingly, Lydia Lawrence wasn’t born into the middle-class.
Personally, I spent a lot of time wanting to throttle Paul. He’s horrible to the two women who love him – as lovers, that is – Miriam a young farm girl he meets as a child and plays with at least once a week, later meeting the older, married Clara Dawes through Miriam. Miriam loves him truly, enduring his emotionally abusive and sexually needy behavior. The ultimate slap in the face, he dumps her for Clara, though he still feels he “owes” Miriam so much, because she’s the one who loves him best. He has lots of meaningless sex with Clara, too, so at least he’s fair about that.
It’s a mess. Everyone gets hurt – even Paul’s mother, who despairs of his loving either woman – except Paul, who loves no one but his mother, anyway. Even when she’s dying he wants to push her along, having had enough of her and having to care and worry about her health.
Paul Morel is an asshole and his mother an enabler.
The book’s supposedly Lawrence’s masterpiece. It has its merits but would have been far better had it been cut in half. The number of times Paul falls for, then hates all the women are so redundant I almost thought the book was intended as comedy. It’s ridiculous how repetitive it is. When Clara’s husband beats up Paul I was cheering, let’s put it that way.
Still, some of the prose is gorgeous, especially the natural description. And, if you cut it liberally, the story and characterizations are superb. But the sheer length of it, good god…
Again, from Wikipedia:
Lawrence summarized the plot in a letter to Edward Garnett on 12 November 1912:
It follows this idea: a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life. She has had a passion for her husband, so her children are born of passion, and have heaps of vitality. But as her sons grow up she selects them as lovers — first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother — urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can’t love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them. It’s rather like Goethe and his mother and Frau von Stein and Christiana — As soon as the young men come into contact with women, there’s a split. William gives his sex to a fribble, and his mother holds his soul. But the split kills him, because he doesn’t know where he is. The next son gets a woman who fights for his soul — fights his mother. The son loves his mother — all the sons hate and are jealous of the father. The battle goes on between the mother and the girl, with the son as object. The mother gradually proves stronger, because of the ties of blood. The son decides to leave his soul in his mother’s hands, and, like his elder brother go for passion. He gets passion. Then the split begins to tell again. But, almost unconsciously, the mother realizes what is the matter, and begins to die. The son casts off his mistress, attends to his mother dying. He is left in the end naked of everything, with the drift towards death.
- What he said.
- In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Sons and Lovers ninth on a list of the 100 best novels in English of the 20th century.
- Seriously, eh?
- Sons and Lovers has been adapted for the screen several times, including the Academy Award winning 1960 film, a 1981 BBC TV serial and another on ITV1 in 2003. The 2003 serial has been issued on DVD by Acorn Media UK.
- Maybe I’ll try one of the adaptations. Some day, once the trauma of this reading has passed. Something sorter than the original book – though true to the story – would be appreciated. Because seriously, the basis of the story is superb. No, really! It’s just getting through the full, unabridged novel almost killed me.
- Thanks, Mr. Lawrence. Will see you again in the future. May be a while, though.